Feature: The landscapes of 'The Iliad'

By LOU MARANO  |  April 24, 2003 at 9:56 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 24 (UPI) -- Homer's descriptions of the Trojan War don't make sense – unless you understand how the landscape has changed in 3,250 years.

First there's the location of Troy itself. Most scholars agree that 19th century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, for all his other hype, got the spot right: the mound at Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey. Of the 10 main settlement layers there, Troy VI is the richest. After a period of decline, it shows signs of having been attacked and burned.

But the wealth of Troy is based its being a port city, and Hisarlik is far from the water. Now, thanks to the work of University of Delaware geologist John C. Kraft and his colleagues, we know that Troy stood on the eastern end of a great bay that has since silted in. As shown in the map linked at the end of this story, the inlet resembled San Francisco Bay, but smaller. The map is taken from an article by Kraft and three others that appeared in the February issue of the journal Geology.

In a phone interview, Kraft said the first settlement at Troy, more than 5,000 years ago, "was literally on a ridge that was sticking into the water. You could sail a ship up to Troy on three sides" – the north, west, and south. "It was a beautiful site for a naval power."

German science writer Birgit Brandau has been covering excavations at Troy since 1992. In the premier issue of Archaeology Odyssey magazine in 1998, she wrote that Troy, sitting at the entrance to the Dardanelle straits connecting Europe and Asia, engaged in extensive trade starting in the early Bronze Age. "What made Troy's position so powerful was the wind," she wrote.

At the entrance to the strait, a prevailing northeast wind combined with a powerful five-knot current forced ships "to lay up at Troy and wait for favorable southerly winds, which blow for only a few days in the summer."

The Trojans were able to charge not only tolls for passage through the strait, but also mooring fees. During layovers, ships were unloaded and reloaded, and much business was transacted.

Kraft said by the time of the Trojan War, some 3,250 years ago, sediment from the Scamander and Simois rivers had silted up the bay to the point that the city was about a kilometer from the water. Today the bay is completely filled in.

Geologists can plot the changes by radiocarbon dating the marine shells recovered from bore holes. In delta regions with little or no tide, river currents push older shells seaward, but younger shells are seldom – if ever – transported toward the land.

The picture that emerges matches the landscape Homer describes in "The Iliad."

Kraft said the Greeks sailed into the bay and beached their ships in an arc on the east side of the neck of land that sheltered the bay, sterns first, bows toward the water for quick getaways. "You might have three rows of ships, and the ships furthest inland (west) would be higher," he said.

Bronze Age ships were light, Kraft said, like Viking craft but much more primitive. They shouldn't be confused with massive Greek triremes, which came along 1,000 years later.

The warships in particular were light enough so the crew could run them up onto the sand. Freighters might have been heavier.

Sailing against the wind was difficult, so oars were important. Mariners hugged the coasts and beached their ships for the night whenever they could.

The fighting Homer describes in "The Iliad" makes much more sense in the light of Kraft's research and modern archaeology. In Book 7 the wise warrior Nestor suggests digging a deep ditch backed buy a wall, probably of logs or planks, to protect the ships. (It's hard to believe this was done only in the 10th year of the war. More likely the siege didn't last that long, or the trench was dug earlier.) In Books 12 and 13, the Trojans temporarily breach the rampart and threaten to burn the invaders' ships.

Kraft said the Kesik Cut is a man-made feature about 20 meters deep that crosses the neck of land south of the Greek camp and ship station. "It's still there, partially filled in," he said, transecting a ridge that goes from sea level on the eastern (bay) side, uphill, and then down again toward the western, Aegean side.

The geologist believes a palisade defended the cut, possibly with a gate on the eastern end of the trench through which the Greek chariots got in and out. "Remember this is a hill that's steepest in the middle and low on both sides," he told UPI.

"It's a tremendous defensive position. If you're on that peninsula and you're worried about chariots coming at you, that trench is a vicious thing – that would really stop you. The Trojans did get across it one time. They may not have got in there with their chariots. They may have just come roaring around that eastern end."

Kraft said Troy and the Greek camp were about four kilometers apart. "If this war's been going on a long time, they wouldn't want their camps close together, because they'd have no way to protect themselves. So four kilometers is a reasonable distance," he said.

Archaeologist Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tübingin has headed the German excavations at Troy since 1988. He believes Homeric Troy consisted of a high-walled citadel of about five acres surrounded by a moat and a lower city populated by merchants, craftsmen and laborers. Korfmann's critics say he lacks archaeological evidence of the lower city, inferred through geomagnetic research, or of substantial trade. The controversy is explored in a series of articles in the July/August 2002 issue of Archaeology Odyssey.

Kraft, who has been studying the ancient coastlines of the eastern Mediterranean for two decades, thinks the evidence for Korfmann's interpretations is "overwhelming." He has always been interested in the classics, and particularly their descriptions of geography.

Three years ago he met classical scholar John V. Luce of Trinity College in Dublin, whose book "Celebrating Homer's Landscapes" (Yale University Press, 1998) was influenced by Kraft's early research. "Luce understands 'The Iliad' backwards and forwards," Kraft said. From Luce Kraft learned that the Greek geographer and historian Strabo, who lived 2,000 years ago, wrote of the continuing sedimentation around Troy and of blind-mouth marshes and saltwater lagoons, which Kraft said are "very precise determinants of the shape of the coastline and ancient landscape at the time of 'The Iliad.' "

In addition to Luce's knowledge of Strabo and Strabo's sources, Luce was able to employ his mastery of Homer's Ionic Greek, which is not always rendered faithfully in literary translations.

Kraft's journal article notes the terrain features in the Trojan lines of defense as described in Book 10 of "The Iliad" by the captured (and justly terrified) scout, Dolon. Certain Trojan allies are camped "on the wings toward the sea."

Kraft said that would mean on cliffs northwest of the city. The Trojans and their allies would have disposed their forces from that point to Thymbra, to the southeast. Those troops would have been looking out across the Scamander Plain and would have opposed anyone crossing it, he said.

The land to the east of Thymbra is very steep -- "a gorge with cliffs in it. I would have trouble walking it," Kraft said. Attackers approaching from that direction would have been vulnerable.

To attack from the north, the Greeks would have had to make an amphibious landing near some cliffs, climb the cliffs and cross a flood plain. Their ships would have been vulnerable.

Homer is very specific in his description of topography, Kraft said, and his descriptions really fit.

Kraft believes Homer must have visited the site, even though he lived hundreds of years after the Trojan War. "If he was blind, then he was blind in old age because his descriptions of landforms are so specific."

Luce, in a phone interview from Ireland, told UPI that until he read Kraft he had not realized that "these rivers flowing into the Mediterranean alluviate valleys very quickly because there's no tide to carry away the sediment." With this insight, Luce had to "rethink the whole strategic campaign."

Luce said some literary types objected to his application, in "Celebrating Homer's Landscapes," of topography to poetry.

"I'm just going back to the ancient view of Homer as the first Greek geographer," Luce said. "He's the first to mention the Nile, and the continents, and islands' relation to the landmass, and so on. And I'm very much emphasizing the historicity of the Trojan War.

"Homer was an oral poet living not far from Troy itself. He was born in what's now Ismir (Smyrna), Turkey, in the late 8th century, B.C., which is considerably after the Trojan War. He was a professional singer, or bard, who made his living by traveling and giving recitations in a virtually illiterate age. He was a kind of roving reporter, one might say."

Luce said if a bard recited geographical or historical facts his audience deemed wrong, they would soon set him straight.

"So I suggested very strongly in my book that you must not view him as a modern aesthete, as an American university would, but you must think of him as popular broadcaster who would very soon be pulled up if he got his facts wrong."

Troy was a great attraction for tourists in the Hellenistic age, Luce said. "And, of course, the tourists wanted to know where the battles were fought and where the Greek camp was, and these things were all pointed out to them. And I think modern scholars tend to degrade the evidence of Strabo because he lived so long after the event. But they don't realize how strong the tradition was."

Kraft had been told that Strabo's evidence was worthless because Strabo hadn't visited the area.

But Luce said Strabo had access to libraries and used good sources. One of the sources was Lady Hestiaea, who lived at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. She lived at a place called Alexandria Troas, about 20 miles south of Troy, where St. Paul had the vision of a man of Macedonia asking him to come to Europe (Acts 16:8-11). Hestiaea pointed out that the plain north of Troy did not exist at the time of the siege.

Luce said that Mycenaean pottery found at Troy indicates extensive trade.

"My own feeling is the Greeks knew Troy very well for 150 years before the Trojan War," he said. Either the languages were close enough for people to make themselves understood, such as Danish and Swedish, or the Trojan elite was bilingual in Greek. "That late Bronze Age was a very international one. There were great trade contacts all around the eastern Mediterranean in which Egypt, and Cyprus participated," Luce said.

"The received picture is that Troy was a vassal state of the Hittite Empire. And the Mycenaeans were a very expanding power, trying to find a foothold on the coast of what's now Turkey. It was simply Mycenaean policy to extend their control over the coastline for political and economic reasons. They worked up from the direction of Rhodes. We can see them extending their hold on that coastline port-by-port, till they get up to Miletus and Ephesus. But then there's that northwest corner of Turkey, which is strategically very important. ...

"The late 12th century B.C., where I place the Trojan War, was a time when the Hittite Empire was declining and losing its hold on these vassal states. So I think the Mycenaeans said to themselves, 'Now's our time expand our commercial hold over that coastline right up to the Black Sea entrance.'

"And then the Helen thing came along as a contributory cause. You mustn't rule that out, you know, in a warrior aristocracy. The Norman conquest of Ireland was all about a quarrel over a woman. These Gaelic chieftains were quarreling over a woman, and one of them called in the Normans to help him, which was a dangerous thing to do. But that was a perfectly valid historical example of where a quarrel over a woman led to conquest and annexation. So you can't dismiss that sort of reason."

(The map that accompanies this article can be accessed at upi.com/photos. The ID number is WAX2003042206.)

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